It's an accomplishment in itself for an NFL team to claim 10-plus wins in a season. The Baltimore Ravens achieved the feat last week and now have their sights set on a third straight trip to the playoffs with Sunday's showdown against AFC North-rival Cleveland.
The Ravens blew a 14-point lead in last weekend's win over the New Orleans Saints, but were able to bounce back for a 30-24 triumph. The victory was extra special, since the Pittsburgh Steelers lost at home to the New York Jets and allowed the Ravens to briefly move into a first-place tie with the Steelers in the AFC North race with just two games left to play.
Pittsburgh won its Week 16 matchup with Carolina to take a half-game lead in the division standings and would edge out Baltimore in a tiebreaker if it beats the Browns next week, but one more victory by the Ravens in the next two games will punch their ticket to the playoffs.
The Ravens have prevailed in two straight and four of their last five games to improve to 10-4 on the season and have recorded 10-plus wins in three straight years, when counting the playoffs. Now they have to go win on the road against the division-foe Browns, and three of their four losses this season have come away from M&T Bank Stadium.
If the Ravens can get performances like Ray Rice had this past Sunday on a consistent basis, they'll be in good shape to give New England a run for its money as the best team in the AFC. Rice ran for a season-high 153 yards and a touchdown on a season-best 31 carries and also caught five passes for 80 yards and another score for a Ravens team rated 31st in yards per rush attempt coming into the game. Baltimore racked up 208 yards rushing and gave head coach John Harbaugh another reason to feel confident in his players.
"Our offensive line, they work hard every day," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes you don't see the fruits of your labor as quickly as you want to, but it paid off [Sunday], and I'm proud of those guys."
Rice had just 80 yards on 15 carries in the Ravens' first meeting with Cleveland this season, a 24-17 victory in their own backyard on Sept. 26. Baltimore, which had 109 yards rushing that day, will once again try to pound the football on the ground to set up quarterback Joe Flacco and the pass attack. Flacco burned the Browns for 262 yards and three scores with no interceptions in the initial encounter, but needed just 172 passing yards and a pair of touchdown strikes versus the Saints since the running game was working so feverishly.
Cleveland will play the role of spoiler like it has in the past three years, as it hasn't won six or more games in a season since going 10-6 during the 2007 campaign. The roster has undergone an overhaul since and the team is hoping some of the younger players will mature into playoff-caliber talent.
The Browns, currently led by rookie quarterback Colt McCoy and bruising running back Peyton Hillis, have dropped two in a row and four of six games to fall to 5-9 on the campaign. They sustained a 19-17 setback at Cincinnati on Sunday and almost rallied from a 16-7 deficit. McCoy threw for a career-best two touchdown passes with no interceptions and 243 yards, and is currently battling an illness that shouldn't prevent him from starting.
McCoy, who is 2-4 as a starter, missed three games with a sprained ankle before returning against the AFC North-foe Bengals. He was sacked four times and finished the game with a 132.6 quarterback rating, the second-highest ever by a Browns rookie. Charlie Frye's 136.7 rating against Jacksonville in 2005 is still the record.
After serving as the emergency signal-caller in a loss at Buffalo on Dec. 12, McCoy is still searching for ways to improve this week.
"I felt pretty good," McCoy said after the Cincinnati loss. "Obviously, if you don't get a win, there are a lot of things that you think about that you could have done better, things you could have seen. I thought being back I was seeing [the game] just as [well] as I was when I got hurt."
Hillis had just 59 yards on 14 carries last week, one game after finishing with 108 yards on 21 carries at Buffalo. He has been limited in practice due to an a sore knee as well, but isn't expected to miss Sunday's tilt.
The offseason pickup has reached the 100-yard mark in rushing five times this season and will be key in stopping the Ravens from celebrating a postseason berth. Then again, Baltimore may do the exact same thing since Bengals back Cedric Benson had 150 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries against the Browns last week.
Cleveland will close out the 2010 season with back-to-back home games versus the Ravens and Pittsburgh -- two teams trying to post up on each other in the competitive AFC North standings -- and has split its first six games at home this year.
Baltimore holds a 16-7 lead in its all-time series with Cleveland and won for the fifth consecutive time against the Browns with the above-mentioned 24-17 triumph in Week 3. Cleveland's last victory over the Ravens was a 33-30 overtime decision at M&T Bank Stadium on Nov. 18, 2007, and the team also bested Baltimore at home by a 27-13 count that same season.
Harbaugh owns a 5-0 lifetime record against the Browns. Cleveland's Eric Mangini is 0-4 against the Ravens as a head man, including a loss during his tenure with the Jets from 2006-08, and is 0-3 head-to-head with Harbaugh.
Mangini served as an assistant coach with the Ravens during the 1996 season, their first in Baltimore.
WHEN THE RAVENS HAVE THE BALL
Flacco (3,395 passing yards, 23 TD, 8 INT) has been able to protect the football this season and has been picked off just twice in his last 10 games. He needed just 172 yards through the air to beat New Orleans, but that's simply because Rice put the offense on his back and made big plays with his legs. Flacco is 5-0 lifetime against the Browns, completing 90-of-132 passes for 1,136 yards with six touchdown passes and a pair of interceptions. He's also thrived in the month of December, which is excellent for teams in the running for a playoff spot much like the Ravens are right now. Flacco owns 15 touchdown passes and seven picks for an 86.8 passer rating as a starter in the year's final month for his career. The former Delaware Blue Hen is 219 passing yards shy of exceeding his career-best mark of 3,613 yards established a season ago. Flacco, however, has been sacked three or more times in each of the past five games. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin (60 receptions, 7 TD) is having a strong first season in Baltimore, but had only one catch for two yards last week. Boldin enjoyed his best game as a Raven against the Browns a few months ago, racking up 142 yards and three touchdown catches.
The Browns can expect a full plate of Rice on Sunday, both running the football and catching passes out of the backfield. They are 25th in the NFL against the rush, allowing 129.2 yards per game, and were burned by Benson for 150 yards and a score last week. Nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) leads all NFL defensive lineman with 74 tackles this season and finished with a game-best 10 stops against Cincinnati. Linebackers Chris Gocong (62 tackles, 2 sacks) and Eric Barton (57 tackles) better have their track shoes on with Rice, as well as Boldin and fellow wide receiver Derrick Mason, three of the catalyst of Baltimore's offense. Cleveland rookie defensive back T.J. Ward (114 tackles, 2 INT) leads the Browns in stops and is trying to become the first rookie to lead Cleveland in tackles since 1999. Another first- year defensive back, Joe Haden (54 tackles), is first on the team with five picks for a Cleveland squad ranked 15th in pass defense (222.6 ypg). The Browns, the only team in the league not give to up 30 or more points in a game this season, will have the home crowd on their side and are fourth in the league with 18 interceptions. In another odd twist, the Browns have allowed 26 first-quarter points -- the lowest total in the NFL.
WHEN THE BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
McCoy (1,218 passing yards, 5 TD, 3 INT) seems to be the best choice to start at quarterback next season for the Browns and has handled himself wonderfully so far in his first year at the NFL level. He is one of the few rookie quarterbacks to earn starting nods this season, joining Sam Bradford of St. Louis, Tim Tebow of Denver, Carolina's Jimmy Clausen and John Skelton of Arizona. McCoy has registered a rating of 100 or better in two of his six career starts and his favorite target last Sunday against the Bengals was tight end Ben Watson (58 receptions, 3 TD), who had seven catches for 92 yards and leads all AFC tight ends in receptions. Watson also joined Milt Morin, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow as the only Browns tight ends to record 600 or more receiving yards in a season. Hillis (1,129 rushing yards, 11 TD) has taken the NFL landscape by surprise and has 252 carries and 59 catches in his first season with the Browns, who acquired him in an offseason trade with Denver. He became the first Cleveland rusher to run for 100 yards against Baltimore this season, posting 144 yards and a score back in September. Since the 1999 campaign, Baltimore has yielded only 24 100-yard rushers, and just six over the last 65 games. The Browns are only 18th in rushing this season, however, averaging 107.2 yards per game. Hillis, the ninth player in team history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season, has 469 yards receiving and a pair of scores in addition to his ground totals.
Ravens tempestuous linebacker Terrell Suggs (63 tackles) already got the trash- talking started for this one, but it was directed to New England quarterback Ton Brady, saying that he didn't vote for him to be on the AFC Pro Bowl roster. Suggs, who leads the team with 11 sacks, may have to face Brady in the playoffs, but may want to stay focused on a Cleveland team that embarrassed Brady and the Pats earlier this season. Suggs is a relentless pass rusher and had one of three sacks on Saints quarterback Drew Brees last week. The Ravens have made it a priority to keep pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as evidenced by their handful of hurries on Brees. Suggs has recorded a sack in three straight games and needs 1 1/2 more to eclipse his career-high of 12 set during his rookie season of 2003. Suggs' 11 career sacks against the Browns are the most he has against any opponent. He also has three-career multi-sack performances in this series, more than against any other team, and needs two more quarterback takedowns to pass Peter Boulware (70 sacks) and become the Ravens' all-time leader. Suggs and future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis (124 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) can make it tough on Hillis to gain yards if the power back is able to get past a defensive line anchored by Pro Bowl tackle Haloti Ngata (60 tackles, 6 sacks). He was part of a Baltimore defense that permitted a season-low 27 rushing yards to New Orleans.
Rice was a fantasy star last week and came up huge for owners who are already in the playoffs. Expect another all-around performance from him this week, while Flacco is another solid choice given his track record in this series. Boldin and Mason are tough to pick from, so starting either one will help. As usual, give the Ravens' aging defense a nod considering who it's facing this week.
Hillis has been a huge surprise around the fantasy world and for owners fortunate enough to pick him up via the free-agent wire. McCoy, who battled an illness this week, is not ready for a matchup like this versus Baltimore's stingy defense. Watson and wideout Brian Robiskie are worthy threats for Cleveland, with Robiskie having a touchdown catch last week.
The Ravens have traditionally turned the Browns into a personal doormat and will wipe their cleats clean to a postseason berth Sunday in Cleveland. Don't expect Rice to carry the offense again, since the Browns will surely be honing in on the former Rutgers star. Flacco will continue his ascent as one of the top AFC quarterbacks, however, and is good for at least two touchdown passes in a lopsided affair. Suggs and Lewis will make sure Hillis stays grounded and McCoy confused with constant pressure from all sides.